WINGLESS SPEC SPRINTS HAVE ARRIVED
BY DON MARTIN II
BAY POINT, CA.Those looking for an affordable and fast form of Sprint Car racing need not look too far. Actually, it has been here in one form or another for the past 15 years, but it just had its coming out party Friday and Saturday night. It is the Wingless Spec Sprints, and 32 racers made the trip to Chowchilla Speedway to compete on the one-third mile clay oval for a $5,000 purse last October.
Currently, there are four two barrel carbureted, 360 cast iron motor, self-starting, non-winged Sprint Car groups in California. They are the NCMA Modified Sprints, All Pro Series Wingless Spec Sprints of Antioch, RACE Wingless Spec Sprints of Chowchilla and the California Modifieds of Orland. The active roster between these four groups is over 80 now and growing, and there are at least a couple tracks considering starting the division in 2002.
The NCMA holds the distinction of being the oldest of the four groups as it completed its 14th season last year. When it started in 1987, it had a very different look to it and was the newest of the carbureted groups at that time. The California Dirt Cars were an off shoot of the DIRT Modifieds that raced at tracks in states like New York and Pennsylvania, and Doug Fort of Santa Maria was looking for a division to put some life into his open wheel program on his popular one-third mile clay oval.
In 1987, Merced Speedway was in it's second year running VMRC Limited Sprint Cars, and promoter Chuck Griffin was getting ready to start his own California Modified class, which he would do in 1988. In 1986, enterprising open wheel racer Mike Johnson had returned to California after three years racing a Sprint Car throughout the United States. He raced and won a main event in the 360 Sprint Car division at Baylands Raceway, but his concern for the way the rules were heading led him away from there and down to Santa Maria.
Promoter Doug Fort offered a $500 bonus to the first ten drivers who fielded a new car for his California Dirt Car division in 1987, and Johnson was eager to be one of them. Though the trip from Concord to Santa Maria was a long one, Johnson put an eastern style body on his 1981 Trostle Sprint Car and made the trip several times, finishing as high as second once. While he enjoyed the competition, Johnson wanted to race at tracks closer to home. Though some who thought he was taking away from the Santa Maria effort criticized him, Johnson began advertising the NCDC and a possible 1988 schedule.
In 1988, Johnson hit pay dirt when Antioch Speedway track management changed, allowing him to convince new track manager George Stiles to give his class a shot. This was not a popular decision with some Antioch racers, who felt the IMCA type Modifieds should have been given the dates, but Johnson moved ahead with just four cars in the early days. Two of those cars were his. The Northern California Modified Association was soon formed, as Johnson wanted to give the class its own identity and let the racers shape the rules with their votes.
At Merced, the California Modifieds were born in 1988, and the California Dirt Cars continued at Santa Maria. Gradually, the gap between the NCMA Dirt Cars and the Santa Maria Dirt Cars grew, due mainly to the fact that Santa Maria racers were getting wider wheel based cars built back east. The budget minded NCMA's cars were basically old Super Modifieds and Sprint Cars with smaller wheelbases. When the two groups went head to head, Santa Maria racers would come out ahead. It wasn't long before the wider wheel based cars were voted out of the NCMA.
After a year trying to form the NCMA and a year running it, Johnson departed in 1989, and the division struggled for both acceptance and the ability to field double-digit car counts. In the early days, drivers were under pressure not to miss any races, because double-digit car count depended on a high majority of support. Seeing how the NCMA was trying to sell an old style of racing to promoters, future club president Jim Booth successfully lobbied to change the body style of the cars to a choice of an old Sedan and Coupe.
At Santa Maria, car count stayed in the ten to 14 cars per race range, though the competition on the track remained very close and exciting. At Merced, the Cal Mod was coming into its own. Promoter Chuck Griffin decided in 1990 to make his headline class the Cal Mod. At the time, it was a NASCAR track, and that meant Pacific Coast Regional points would go to the Cal Mods. To the chagrin of many of the Stock Car drivers who raced at nearby tracks, Merced champion Gordon Rodgers finished third and second in Regional points in consecutive seasons. He did it racing half the races the others in the Region had.
Realizing that he needed to change with the times, Griffin changed the Cal Mod to the Limited Sprint in 1992. It was still a carbureted and winged class, but it was encouraged of drivers to bring newer equipment. The immediate effect of that was several Merced drivers flocking to NCMA races and running wingless. Under Booth's leadership as president, the inflow of cars was a big factor in saving the club from almost certain death before the 1992 season ever started. Car counts reached into the 20's at NCMA races for the first time in 1992, even beating the 17-car record of Merced's 1990 finale.
In 1993, the NCMA's momentum seemed to be dead, and most of the Merced drivers that came either quit or went back. Disappointed with NCMA's direction, Johnson returned and formed the California Modified Association and its ambitious sister series, the California Modified Series. Johnson hoped that by getting groups to put wings on or take wings off, big races between the NCMA, CMA, Merced Limited Sprints and Santa Maria California Dirt Cars could be possible. He also thought it would then be possible to gain real purses. Unfortunately, none of the groups were interested in this "sprit of cooperation" at the time.
The CMA only lasted a year, but its impact was two fold. The CMA discovered a group of carbureted Sprint Car drivers that had to run with the injected cars at Yreka Speedway. When the CMA consented to put on wings and make the trip to the Northern California border town, that track's Sportsman (carbureted) Sprint division was given new life. Johnson won the first race, but thanks to the CMA visiting, the Yreka division got to prove it was more than a "slow Sprint Car" and was allowed to run its own races.
During 1994, NCMA "Rookie Of The Year" and future Business Manager Duane Watson was taking a hard look at the CMA and its ideas, while others where simply bashing it. Watson saw that the CMA was actually getting more money and had some good ideas. He would incorporate them with his own ideas, as he became the NCMA's chief race date and purse negotiator in 1995. Under the leadership of new President Gordon Chappa, who was very active in recruiting new drivers, and Watson, the NCMA would enter its most successful period ever.
Meanwhile, the beat went on at Santa Maria and Merced. After a couple of disappointing seasons with car counts, Fresno area drivers began to boost Merced's Limited Sprint Car count to double digits in 1994. Unfortunately, just when it looked like Merced's class was about to take off again, drivers began getting frustrated. The end result was several of them taking off to Tulare and Hanford and helping start the non-winged Bandit Sprint Car division.
Santa Maria's California Dirt Car effort never got going the way it was desired. The 22 car turnout they had in 1990, a record for six years, was only achieved with NCMA support and was this effort's only foray into the 20's. At the end of 1997, the division was ended in favor of a new Sprint Car class. Meanwhile, 1997 Merced champion Mark Amador was allowed to pursue his dream of mixing injected and carbureted cars together using different tire and weight rules. Though count did reach ten at one point in 1998, it was to be the last year for the renamed Renegade Sprint Car class at Merced.
Back at Antioch, B Mains started being required at some NCMA races in 1996 and 1997. When the track changed promoters in 1998, new Promoter John Soares Jr. was persuaded to keep the division on the schedule. Soares liked the open wheel cars, but scheduling conflicts caused him some concern. He wanted a class he could rely on for several race dates and offered the NCMA to join All Pro for 12 dates, allowing them the opportunity to race any other time they wanted as the NCMA. The purse he offered was substantially better than what the NCMA had been getting, but they declined.
Soares then commissioned veteran racer Don O'Keefe Jr. and Don Martin II to get a new Wingless Spec Sprint class started. Using the 1800-pound weight rule, two-barrel carburetor, 360 cast iron motor and self-starting rules, the duo delivered an impressive 12-car turnout at the opener. There were 19 cars at one race that year from an impressive 31 car first year roster. The NCMA had been offered several dates at Antioch, but negotiations broke down over booking issues. With Antioch and Merced no longer available to the NCMA and San Jose in decline, the club's existence was in serious danger.
However, before resigning as Business Manager, Duane Watson had opened doors for the NCMA to Placerville and Hanford. The two tracks continued to support the NCMA for the next few seasons. Also, Mark Amador had negotiated several dates for his Renegade Sprint Car group and would share his Altamont dates as "Shoot Out" dates with the NCMA. The idea would be that the NCMA bodies, while hardly resembling the "Modified" style of the Booth era, would not be a requirement at these races. After several practices, the first race took to the half mile paved oval and would be won by NCMA founder Mike Johnson.
Ironically, Johnson had met serious resistance with the NCMA for proposing asphalt race dates some ten years earlier, and ten dates negotiated for Roseville in 1990 by then President Darryl Shirk were turned down. Despite the offerings of more money, the NCMA refused asphalt for years, but the decision to give it a try in 1999 breathed new life into the club. Though the NCMA roster isn't what it once was, car counts have increased several times a year when Antioch racers visit with their Wingless Spec Sprints.
At the time of Amador's decision to move to the asphalt, there were a couple old Merced racers looking to come back to the dirt. George Terry, Roy Winters and Richard and Roy Greer supported Antioch in 1999, but a year later, when Chowchilla Speedway opened, they saw their opportunity to start a class closer to home. Located just 18 miles away from Merced and racing on Friday nights, Terry and the boys opted to run with wings with everything else close to the same as the NCMA and Antioch efforts. The division ran two years with the wings, but they will go with mainly Antioch's Wingless Spec Sprint rules for 2002.
In 2000, Antioch needed to run the occasional B Main for the Wingless Spec Sprints, and that would prove to be the case again a year later as they matched the NCMA's car count for a race record of 26 in just the third year. Encouraged by these numbers, Promoter John Soares Jr. has announced that this division will be his #1 class in 2002 and will have a purse increase. In the midst of this success, budget minded Orland Raceway started its own wingless version of the class last year, called California Modifieds.
Perhaps the rules debates over the years have been the main cause of the lack of uniting the groups for big races. However, the times appear to be changing. Everybody seems to be getting on the same page, and there's every indication that a fifth track may join the ranks of carbureted Sprint Car racing in 2002. After the record car count for this year's Open Wheel Round Up in Chowchilla, Promoter Tom Sagmiller plans to do it again next year. There's even an indication that Soares will do it at Antioch next year as well. The future of carbureted Sprint Car racing in California looks bright indeed.
A HISTORY OF CHAMPIONS, SO FAR
MERCED/CHOWCHILLA: Mike Friesen won the first championship in 1988. Tim Porter won in 1989. Gordon Rodgers won in 1990-91. Engine builder Don Hicks won championships in 1992-93. Tim Porter 1994. Don Hicks 1995. Ed Amador Sr. 1996. Mark Amador 1997. Mitch Pyle 1998. Renegade Sprints Don Hicks 1999. Renegade Sprints Eddie Rhoades 2000. Chowchilla 360-2 Sprints George Terry 2000. Chowchilla 360-2 Sprints Steven Williams 2001.
NCMA: Founder Mike Johnson 1988 (Johnson also crowned Antioch Dirt Car champion at banquet). Darryl Shirk 1989. Scott Holloway 1989 Antioch champion. Scott Holloway 1990. Del Quinn 1990 Marysville champion. Darryl Shirk 1991-93. Scott Holloway 1994. Duane Watson 1995. Darryl Shirk 1996. Scott Holloway 1997. Stan Cargo 1997 Antioch champion. Scott Holloway 1998. Scott Holloway 1998 Antioch champion. Del Quinn 1999. Scott Holloway 2000. Don Hicks 2000 Shoot Out Series champion. Ed Amador Sr. 2001. Ed Amador Sr. Dirt Series champion 2001. Scott Holloway 2001 Asphalt Series champion.
ANTIOCH: Dan Gonderman 1999. Dan Gonderman 1999 State. Don 'O'Keefe Jr. 1999 Petaluma. Travis Berryhill 2000. Terry Tarditi 2001.
SANTA MARIA: Kenny Van Blargen 1987. Steve Clevenger 1988-89. Gary Lee Kanawyer 1990. Larry Lord 1991-93. Mark Nation 1994-96. Pete Van Iderstine 1997.
ORLAND: Josh Jacobo 2001.
YREKA: Mike Linder 1993. Ron Godwin 1994. Carl Tresser was the leader of the effort to keep this division going, and it continued until a track management change at the end of 1999. Tresser was part of a revival for this division again in 2001, but the track management closed the track again in July.